Even among dozens of relics from a bygone era that I am too young to remember, one piece of history instantly sticks out. Maybe it's the Army green color, contrasted against a sea of gray keyboards, mice, and computer towers. Maybe it's the fact that I know it belongs to a man who recently cut the top off a school bus to skirt some new rules implemented by Oklahoma's Department of Motor Vehicles. Somehow, I know this computer has a story.
"I found it at a junkyard," James Littlejohn tells me in a southern drawl. "It was buried in the leaves and underneath the trees. I could only see part of the keyboard sticking out of the ground. I got a shovel, dug it up, pulled the roots out from underneath the chips. Ran the motherboard through the dishwasher a few times. After several days of cleaning, she booted right up."
Not every machine at KansasFest has been left for dead in a shallow grave. But they may as well have been. When's the last time you thought about a 38-year-old computer?
Please listen to Motherboard's podcast featuring in-depth interviews with many of KansasFest's attendees.
Every summer, about 70 people descend on Kansas City's Rockhurst University for KansasFest, a conference that can best be described as a 5-day sleepaway camp exclusively for fans of the Apple II, one of the first commercially successful personal computers. KansasFest started in 1989 as an Apple II developer's conference—26 years later, it's still entirely dedicated to the Apple II.
Attendees fully take over the school's Corcoran Hall, scattering floppy disks (the big ones that are actually still floppy), Mountain Dew, and old motherboards, keyboards, and monitors all over the standard-issue dorm furniture. Sleep is rationed. Excitement is not.
You'd think it'd be impossible to have an entire festival dedicated to a computer originally released in 1977. It's not. An entire retro computing hobby has quietly popped up over the last decade or so. People who grew up with Apple IIs have become nostalgic for the games they used to play, while the younger generation has learned to hack old systems to get online and run games and programs off of flash drives. Some have even taken to programming entirely new programs.
The KansasFest schedule is jam-packed with talks and seminars discussing topics such as keyboard repair ("bring a soldering iron!"), graphics programming, and copy protection. In many cases, attendees load up their cars with their Apple IIs or pay exorbitant baggage check fees to attend workshops like the following:
- "A deep dive into the Apple M0100 Mouse, the Apple II mouse interface, and updating them for the modern era."
- "Javier explains his techniques and tricks to convert Apple monitors to LCD."
- "Perspectives on Apple from the Atari side."
- "PLASMA: A new programming language for the Apple II"
I never had an Apple II—we were more of a 386 family. I decided to see what all the fuss was about.
I walked into KansasFest as the keynote speaker, Rebecca Heineman, was beginning her speech. In the mid 1980s, she programmed a host of acclaimed adventure games for the Apple II, including Bard's Tale and Tass Times in Tonetown.
The crowd hung on her every word, literally gasping when she told them she used "static RAM" rather than a "Super FX chip" to increase the performance of a Super Nintendo game she programmed called Another World (she later ported this game to the Apple II). Some of them stand up and cheer when she tells them she's going to do native ports of some of her old games to run on today's best emulators. Much of what she's talking about goes completely over my head.
Hear more: Radio Motherboard interviews attendees at Kansasfest
I was an avid gamer growing up. I played for years in a clan that dominated an esoteric real time strategy game. I read C++ textbooks while sitting by the pool during the summer between seventh and eighth grade. I skipped recess to play chess against my teacher every day in elementary school. At KansasFest, I am out of my element. I am intimidated. I have been thoroughly out-nerded and I've only been here for 20 minutes.
After Heineman's chat, I grab Jason Scott, an archivist for the Internet Archive who is perhaps best known for preserving things many people would consider to be trash, like old America Online floppy disks and CD-ROMs. I recognize Scott from the internet, and I've interviewed him before, so he seems like a potentially good Sherpa to lead me into the retrocomputing subculture.
Scott tells me, more or less, to chill out. These people are nice. These people are good. These people are pure. These people are having the time of their goddamn lives, so don't screw it up for them.
"My favorite thing about KansasFest far and away is the nonironic honesty about the thing the subject is about," Scott told me. "The Apple II fanatics here, the programmers of Apple IIs, the people who have Apple IIs that they're just bringing here to have repaired or to learn more, everybody is coming at it with the sense that this is some part of my life. Either a minor or a major or a forgotten part of my life. And they're here, they're not judged, everyone loves what they're doing. It's not a stepping stone to something else."
"It's not, 'isn't this funny, someone took an old machine and did something with it,'" he added. "The people here know a machine inside and out and yet when they find something new, it's a triumph and the audience here respects that, because they know there's almost nothing left to find."
Designed primarily by Steve Wozniak, the first Apple II was released in 1977, the first hit for a company that would eventually become the most valuable in the world. It cost $1,298, or about $5,000 accounting for inflation. It had no hard drive, a couple KB of RAM, and a 1-bit speaker. Games and programs had to be run off of floppy disks. It was a technological marvel. The Apple II was quickly surpassed in both power and popularity by the Apple II Plus, Apple IIe, Apple IIc, and Apple IIGS (Graphics and Sound), which were released every couple years until 1993.
The Apple II series sold roughly six million units, making it a bonafide hit. If you were of computing age in the 1980s and didn't have an Apple II yourself, you probably knew someone who did, or maybe used one in school. Though the Apple II was extremely popular, during the late 1980s, the company began putting more resources and effort into its new computer, the Macintosh (this much was clear from "1984," the infamous and legendary Ridley Scott-directed Super Bowl commercial announcing the product). It eventually left the Apple II to die.
A group called Resource Central started up its own developers conference in Kansas in 1989, because, as Heineman told me, "there was still a vibrant commercial software industry for the Apple II."
"After a few years of that, when the commercial market died, people said, 'Well, we still want to get together every year,' and it morphed into what we now know as KansasFest," she said.
Heineman herself stopped coming around 1999, and had long since thought that KansasFest went belly up.
"When I was first asked to be the keynote speaker, I was like, 'You're still doing this?'" she told me. "It's been 15 years and my big concern was, do Apple IIs even still work?"
Apple IIs do still work. In fact, they work better today than they ever worked back in the 1980s. With every KansasFest comes a whole new crop of innovations, new games, new theories on how to get the most out of the 64 kb of processing power on most of these things.
KansasFest attendees have managed to get email and internet browsers running on old Apple IIs, they have created new games such as "Flapple Bird," and there's a new RPG on the way called Lawless Legends. I spoke to at least one person who is designing an entirely new programming language for the Apple II; word is there are a couple others in development. One guy, who drove out here from Philadelphia, has worked for months on giving the Apple II Japanese language support for the first time and for a user base he estimates to be about one—himself.
There are companies, such as Ultimate Micro, that make brand new chips, motherboards, and accessories for the Apple II and other retro computers. A few years ago, someone was able to rig an Apple II to be able to run programs off of a USB drive, a development that completely revitalized the hobby.
Now, instead of having to track down working floppy disks of old and rare programs, you can simply download them from any number of sites, including the Internet Archive. Better emulation software has made it possible for enthusiasts to travel everywhere with a MacBook or PC laptop that can do a reasonably good job of mimicking the Apple II. In the corner of KansasFest's common area, there is a machine dedicated entirely to ripping programs off of old floppies and uploading them to the internet.
This year, there's plenty of buzz about a hacker known only as "4 AM." 4 AM has taken hundreds of copy-protected games and programs from the 80s, removed the protection, and uploaded pristine copies of them to the Internet Archive for anyone to download and use. Few people know who 4 AM is, but most respect his mission. Word is, he was at KansasFest and planned to reveal himself. In the end, however, he chose to remain anonymous (he declined an interview request I sent him on Twitter). The mystery lives on another year.
"Our goal is to find new ways of using old computers, new ways of using the technology. Starting 10 years ago is when it looked less like we're hanging on to keep this going any means to being more about the retro stuff," Steven Weyhrich, an Omaha-based medical doctor, author of an Apple II history book, and an organizer of Kansasfest told me. "They've gone from being, 'Oh, it's an old computer, nobody wants this' to being 'Oh, it's a collectible.' They want to keep it because it was part of their computer knowledge and I still love to do this when I have an opportunity."
The hacking, cracking, programming, and fiddling done at KansasFest isn't a totally trivial affair. Heineman tells the crowd that, if you're able to understand how to program a 38-year-old computer, you're probably a much better computer scientist than lots of the ones working today. Weyhrich says today's computers are more powerful and more functional, but we know much less about how they work. In the process, we've lost something.
"I invested a lot of time and knowledge into the Apple II, to the point where I really understood all of what the system is doing. All 64K of memory and what's happening in RAM and ROM, the firmware the programs are using when they run on the Apple II," he said. "With today's machines, you get farther away from the metal the thing's running on. Things change so fast, your phone is a million times more powerful than the Apple II was, but you can't do things on the metal."
KansasFest has its own traditions, its own games, its own culture. There have been legendary appearances by Steve Wozniak. A couple years ago, after Woz made an impromptu appearance, a man drove down from Chicago to show off his working Apple I, of which there are an estimated 75 in working order. One sold for $905,000 last fall.
Every year, attendees play a game called "Bite the Bag," in which you stand on one foot, bend over, and pick up a paper bag with your teeth. Each time, a strip of the bag is ripped off, making it kind of like limbo. There are 3 AM runs to fast food joints, a cookout, a hack-a-thon. The highlight of the whole thing may be "Sean's Garage," a free-for-all grab bag of Apple II accessories and programs that a man named Sean Fahey accumulates over the course of the year.
Each year before the festival, Fahey loads up James Littlejohn's converted school bus with hundreds of floppy disks, old keyboards, books, manuals, monitors, and all sorts of other junk someone else wanted to get rid of.
Steve Weyhrich recorded a parody song to promote KansasFest this year.
There are door decorating contests and there is a Krispy Kreme night held in memory of Ryan Suenaga, who made the trip out to KansasFest every year from Hawaii until his death in 2011. These days, more and more longtime KansasFest attendees are getting too old to make the trip; others have died since the festival started.
KansasFest attendees skew older middle age—most are in their 50s and 60s and had an Apple II growing up or used one for work—and nearly all of them are male, though there were a handful of women in attendance.
There's also plenty of new blood coming each year. KansasFest's youngest attendee is just seven years old. His mother flew in from Austria for her first KansasFest nearly a decade ago; she met the boy's father here.
The boy is learning to program the Apple II and tells me this isn't his first KansasFest: The last time he was here, his mom was pregnant with him.
"I think KansasFest is cool because you see where everything started out," he told me. "Meeting lots of nerds and everything has been lots of fun because I am one. I think nerds are cool."
I had long since come around to his way of thinking.
Editor's note: Additional photos from this report were shot as part of the Photos from Beyond program, in partnership with LG—click to see more photos from this series.